UTEP Helps Bring “VIVA! El Paso” Back to the Borderland

Originally published June 12, 2015

By Lisa Y. Garibay

UTEP News Service


What: VIVA EL PASO Returns to McKelligon Canyon!

When: June 19 – Aug. 8, 2015
Where: McKelligon Canyon Amphitheatre

Tickets: Tickets are $18 and $24 plus applicable fees. A Texas barbecue dinner may also be purchased in advance for an additional cost. Tickets for the show and dinner are available at all Ticketmaster outlets, Ticketmaster.com, the Plaza Theatre Box Office, or Charge-By-Phone (800-745-3000). For more information, please contact 915-534-0600.


One of the borderland’s most beloved, longstanding traditions is back after a short hiatus – thanks in no small part to the talents of artists at The University of Texas at El Paso.

Students and faculty from UTEP’s Department of Theatre and Dance are contributing huge amounts of time and energy to the new production of “VIVA! El Paso,” which had been a regular summer outdoor spectacular staged against the mountain backdrop at McKelligon Canyon Amphitheatre for four decades before it took a break last year to regroup.

UTEP dance major Samantha Siller rehearses a number for the newly revived “VIVA! El Paso”, which runs at McKelligon Canyon Amphitheatre June 19 – Aug. 8. Photo by J.R. Hernandez / UTEP News Service
UTEP dance major Samantha Siller rehearses a number for the newly revived “VIVA! El Paso,” which runs at McKelligon Canyon Amphitheatre June 19 – Aug. 8. Photo by J.R. Hernandez / UTEP News Service

“VIVA!” chronicles the 400-year history and cultural evolution of the El Paso region.

Throughout its history, “VIVA!” has remained 100 percent locally produced, with many UTEP students and alumni contributing to its large cast and crew.

This time around, the University was one of three main partners bringing the production back to life with a new script, new director and many new talents who had never before taken its stage.

The show will be performed each Friday and Saturday night from June 19 through Aug. 8. It is being brought to life via a three-way partnership among the El Paso Community Foundation, El Paso Live and UTEP.

“The foundation sought out UTEP as a partner because the early tenet of VIVA! El Paso was to provide some sort of educational backdrop for the production of the show,” said Eric Pearson, foundation president and CEO. “Implementing student involvement is key, and coupled with a staff and faculty of experienced and talented producers, we believe UTEP is a stellar partner for being the creative force behind the show.”

“The three components of the partnership offer the potential to satisfy needs that must be met to offer our community a solid production,” said Carol McNeal, director of facilities sales and marketing with El Paso Live. “Those needs are funding, business and production management, and creative management.”

Plans for the production to come back to life came together very quickly.

“The green light for the production really came in the 11th hour,” said “VIVA!” director Chuck Gorden, an associate professor of theatre and dance at UTEP. “But it is a testament to the talent of the performers and the production team that we are going to be able to present a quality show in such a short amount of time.”

Gorden stressed that despite such a time crunch, students and faculty colleagues – some of whom had seen or participated in the show while others had never seen it before – were eager to pitch in. He himself balanced the start of “VIVA!” with teaching a full load during the spring semester as well as contributing to other on-campus productions.

Students who were selected to join the 42-member cast also had to fit rehearsals into their own busy schedules.

Assistant Professor of Theatre and Dance Rebecca Rivas is serving as assistant director for “VIVA!”

“I’m originally from El Paso and came to see the show when I was a kid many times, so it’s exciting to be here and help it come back to life,” she said.

Drawing from her expertise in voice and movement, Rivas focused on students who were being thrown into something so large for the very first time, teaching them how to keep their concentration, energy and physical stamina up.

“There’s a lot of waiting, but when you get to go, you have to really go,” she said. “If they aspire to Broadway, a show like this is what will help to prepare them.”

Nancy Batres, a junior majoring in theatre performance, was one of Gorden’s students who got swept up in the excitement of helping such a storied production reawaken.

“I wanted to grow as a performer as much as I could, learning from both Chuck and Rebecca,” said Batres, who came to UTEP from Houston and had never before been exposed to “VIVA!”

She is confident the show will be a big help after she graduates and goes professional. She also welcomed the opportunity to take on dancing for the first time, as was required by most of the roles.

Senior dance major Samantha Siller holds down a nonspeaking role, but feels confident about her ability to act using her body thanks to the training she received during her time at UTEP. For Siller, public performance opportunities like “VIVA!” contribute to her goal to become a dance movement therapist, pushing her to expand her and her fellow students’ horizons beyond campus.

“Our professors always encourage us to try new things and audition for new shows or try new areas beyond something like modern dance or ballet,” she said. “This show features folklórico and flamenco, so it’s definitely expanding our knowledge.”

Vanessa Keyser recalls how the theatre and dance departments were abuzz when it was announced that not only would “VIVA!” be revamped but also that UTEP would be a key partner in its manifestation. She remembered marking the audition date on her calendar.

“Initially I wasn’t too sure because I have seen the show and I didn’t remember any nondancing, nonsinging, strictly acting parts,” she said. “I don’t sing or dance. But Chuck assured me that he had added two straight acting roles. I figured it was worth a shot.”

The senior theatre major won the role of Abuela, working closely with Rivas to craft a character with an authentic accent that is fully representative of El Paso’s multicultural ancestry.

“Every summer my late grandparents would take my sister and I to see VIVA!” she said. “As a child I was enthralled by the pure spectacle. I distinctly remember the amazing dancing and gorgeous costumes. And what an amazing thing to have on a resume! To be part of a production that has run as long as I have been alive.”

A large number of UTEP alumni round out the cast and crew along with amateur and professional performers from throughout the border region. At rehearsals, the group radiated a collective positivity and enthusiasm that bodes well for audiences who will fill the amphitheater this summer.

“The most rewarding thing thus far has been working with the extraordinarily talented men and women on the production team and in the cast,” Gorden said. “It is all of their outstanding efforts that will make this show a resounding success.”

He added, “I believe the relationship between the audience and performers in this year’s production is going to be electric.”